Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Worse Than Dying - Part II

I've been front-paged on the Smirking Chimp (one of my very favorite sites since I began blogging in 2004) since the beginning of this year, and what I write usually seems to be well received - I get a lot of reads and a lot of positive 'votes'. This latest post "Worse Than Dying", however, seems to be scaring people away. I've gotten about a quarter of the number of reads as is usual for me, and only two comments.

One of the commenters remarked upon the conflicting feelings we have towards our soldiers when we hear about the atrocities perpetrated by some in the military; in Haditha or Abu Ghraib, for example. It's hard to sympathize with our soldiers when we hear of these awful horrors being done in our name. And, as progressives, we tend to be on the side of peace, not war. It's difficult for some to identify with people who choose the military as a career - who join the armed forces knowing they will be trained to kill. Even though the incentives offered are varied - college money, career training, discipline, citizenship, patriotism, family tradition, a leg up out of poverty or gangs - the bottom line is that every soldier who signs on the dotted line, in peacetime or in war, knows that they will be trained to kill and may be asked to.

Most soldiers who join the military voluntarily do so because they want to serve their country, and love it enough to lay their life on the line for it. However, there have always been a certain percentage of people who join the armed services simply to have a socially sanctioned outlet for their natural cruelty and desire to dominate others. This is true of the police, too. But we now have a new factor to consider. As people become more and more skeptical about the war and the reasons we are over there, it is becoming more and more difficult to come up with enough soldiers to feed the gaping maw, and the military is becoming less and less selective about who they recruit. This has resulted in more soldiers who should never be allowed to hold a loaded weapon - people with criminal records, mental and emotional problems, drug problems, antisocial tendencies, aggression and anger-management issues - all people who would be 'unfit for service' during a more rational time. And when you add these unstable people to the mix, give them weapons, amp them up and turn them loose, they may not have the self-control to stop when ordered to. You end up with a Haditha; with an Abu Ghraib. But the ultimate responsibility for that atrocity rests with those in command, who design the agenda, set the parameters, create the culture and wield the authority. Abu Ghraib, for instance, was the result of overall policy dictated and approved all the way from the top, not a 'few bad apples' at the bottom. Above all, soldiers are trained to obey authority without question, not make their own policies, and to think that the same methods of torture used in Gitmo, Abu Ghraib, and other war prisons were simultaneously and independently dreamed up by low-level guards and interrogators is to be seriously or even intentionally deluded. Soldiers take their policy from the top, and our recent revelations about torture policy coming all the way from the White House and approved by countless high-level members of government bears this out absolutely.


When a soldier is placed in harm's way by his superiors, he must be equipped to survive and succeed in his mission. If he is unable to defend himself when attacked, or kill the enemy when ordered to do so, it is a criminal act to put him in that position. But as normal humans, the resistance to killing is so deeply ingrained that the training to overcome that resistance must be equally as intense. The techniques of desensitization, conditioning and denial are employed to enable this basic resistance to be overcome and to enable the soldier to obey the orders he is given. Lt. Col. Dave Grossman explains how conditioning works:

When people become angry, or frightened, they stop thinking with their forebrain (the mind of a human being) and start thinking with their midbrain (which is indistinguishable from the mind of an animal). They are literally "scared out of their wits." The only thing that has any hope of influencing the midbrain is also the only thing that influences a dog: classical and operant conditioning.

That is what is used when training firemen and airline pilots to react to emergency situations: precise replication of the stimulus that they will face (in a flame house or a flight simulator) and then extensive shaping of the desired response to that stimulus. Stimulus-response, stimulus-response,stimulus-response. In the crisis, when these individuals are scared out of their wits, they react properly and they save lives.


Conditioning enables the soldier to do what he is told under extreme duress, without thinking about it consciously. He simply reacts the way he has been trained. ‘Muscle memory’ bypasses the midbrain’s deeply-ingrained resistance to killing another human. Add desensitization (wallowing in violent imagery until it no longer has any emotional effect upon the subject) and denial (the defense mechanism that enables us to function by pretending and believing that something objectionable does not exist) and you have a human grenade with the pin pulled. But as successful as we have been in removing the resistance to killing, we have not been anywhere near as successful in rebuilding what has been torn down when the soldier leaves the battlefield; a part of him is destroyed which can never be fixed.

Since we are a nation which has a standing military, and live in a world with nations that still wage war against each other, we must acknowledge the important role our military plays in our democracy. We must have a fighting force ready, willing and able to defend our nation at need. And, sadly enough, that involves killing. As a person who believes in peace and works for peace, for me to deny the reality that the military is an integral part of the structure of our society would be worse than na├»ve. It would be irresponsible. That is why I think it's so very important to never, ever ask someone to shoulder the horrific burden of causing the death of another person unless it is unavoidable. We owe that much to every single soldier that puts on the uniform of the United States of America. This is not to say I approve of war; I wish that no nation chose to solve differences by attacking other nations, and my goal is to work toward that aim no matter whether it is possible or not. It is because I value peace that I respect those that have volunteered to put their lives on the line for us, and it is because I honor their service that I am outraged that their service has been so disrespected by those who command it. And a war of choice, of greed and profit and imperialism - is murder, plain and simple. With ‘special circumstances’, as the prosecutors put it.


In the aftermath of Vietnam, and the lessons we learned at such a terrible cost, the Weinberger doctrine (named for Caspar Weinberger, Reagan's secretary of defense) attempted to lay a moral foundation for determining our war policy. It stated that:

  • "The United States should not commit forces to combat unless our vital interests are at stake."
  • "We must commit them in sufficient numbers and with sufficient support to win."
  • "We must have clearly defined political and military objectives. "
  • "We must never again commit forces to a war we do not intend to win."
  • "Before the United States commits forces abroad, the U.S. government should have some reasonable assurance of the support of the American people and their elected representatives in the Congress .... U.S. troops cannot be asked to fight a battle with the Congress at home while attempting to win a war overseas. Nor will the American people sit by and watch U.S. troops committed as expendable pawns on some grand diplomatic chessboard."
  • "Finally, the commitment of U.S. troops should be as a last resort."


Every single one of these directives was ignored by the Bush Administration. And the Weinberger doctrine did not even consider the possibility of lying to Congress, the soldiers, and the American people about a casus belli - the very idea was unthinkable. Who would imagine the need to list it as a possibility, much less actually have it happen? The war cheerleaders are constantly harping on 'winning', it is true; they love to use the phrase "Don't you want us to win?" to bludgeon Democrats or anyone who objects to our continued and unwanted presence in Iraq. But one cannot define 'winning' without 'clearly defined political and military objectives.' How can you 'win' when there are no rules to the game? They use the word 'win' without any context whatsoever and imagine they are 'supporting the troops' by doing so. You can't ignore every other guideline and then bray about 'winning'. And instead of looking for the best way to end our part in this conflict, they insist that the sacrifices of those that have fought and died will mean nothing unless we continue to send more men and women to fight and die. 'Winning' means whatever they want it to mean this week - whatever suits their political or financial interests at the moment. And if you don't agree, you're a Troop-Hating, Terrorist-Loving Traitor.

This loathsome Administration sent men and women to die - and to kill - for shabby, venal, self-serving, and ultimately criminal reasons, and lied to them about why they were really over there, knowing full well that if they told the truth about why they wanted to attack Iraq, that they would not have been allowed to "use force", as they so euphemistically call it. It's easy to spill someone else's blood when you're talking in terms of numbers and statistics and tactics. When you are removed from the actual dying, the actual killing, you can ask for 'x' number of 'units' to go here or there, do this or that. 40,000 troops ; 75,000 troops ; 150,000 troops - just numbers, units, a recipe for war. Add 50,000 units and mix well, then fry until crisp. But what about that one soldier - your own son, daughter, husband, sister?

The America I believe in does not attack another sovereign nation that presents no danger to us. The America I love is an example of the best we can be as humans, not a thug to be feared and despised. And the America I am working towards is one that will not defile its military of which it is justly proud by allowing it to be used as a tool to further the greed and power-lust of amoral sociopaths who will steal our future as well as our present.

That is an America worth fighting for.

Update - during the time it took to write this, I did receive one more comment that touched me very much. Do yourself a favor and read that1guy's story.

Monday, June 16, 2008

American Liberalism Project - new to Hooterville!

I'd like to let you all know about a site I have been invited to write at. It's called the American Liberalism Project, which supports what I've been talking about for some time - the value of liberalism. I'm glad to be a part of this fine site that promotes the liberal values I hold dear, and if you'd like to stop by and say hi to JB and SueZ, they would love to hear from you.

Worse Than Dying

cross-posted at the Smirking Chimp and the American Liberalism Project


“The soldier above all other people prays for peace, for they must suffer and bear the deepest wounds and scars of war.”
General Douglas MacArthur

What is worse than dying?

Killing.

What is worse than loss of your life?

Loss of your soul.

When we talk about the horrors of this gruesome and unjust conflict in Iraq, most people (including myself) talk about the outrage of the deaths of hundreds of thousands of innocent people.

But what about the soldiers who are sent to do the killing?

Lt. Col. Dave Grossman, a West Point psychology professor, Professor of Military Science, and an Army Ranger, has made a lifetime study of the psychology of violence and killing, which he calls, simply enough, ‘killology’. His Pulitzer prize-nominated book On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society explores the history and psychology of killing. In a time of so much death and destruction that has largely been sanitized and deliberately kept vague and abstract, out of the way of the American consciousness, to the extent of forbidding photographs of flag-draped coffins returning from overseas, the administration has substituted rah-rah jingoism and ‘flag-pin patriotism’, but remain curiously silent about those they send to do their unspeakably dirty work under the false premise of ‘protecting America’. Bush and his cohorts have taken base advantage of the best and noblest instincts of those who love their country enough to volunteer to serve and defend it with their lives, and repaid them by destroying not only their bodies and minds, but their souls.

Approximately 98% of people are averse to killing other human beings. The other 2% have been observed to have a “predisposition toward aggressive psychopathic personalities.” U.S. Army Brigadier General S.L.A. Marshall was an Army historian during World War II, and he headed up a team of historians who interviewed thousands of soldiers in more than four hundred infantry companies immediately after close combat. The results were shocking, to say the least:

“only 15-20% of the American riflemen in combat during World War II would fire at the enemy. Those who would not fire did not run or hide (in many cases they were willing to risk great danger to rescue comrades, get ammunition, or run messages), but they simply would not fire their weapons at the enemy, even when faced with repeated waves of banzai charges.”

These figures are borne out in other war accounts throughout history – up until the Korean War, this percentage of soldiers who chose not to kill was roughly the norm, from Alexander the Great on up through World War II. However, military science has evolved new training methods based on ‘operant conditioning’ and other psychological techniques which raised the ‘firing rate’ from 15 percent in WWII to 55 percent in Korea, and from Vietnam on, up to 90-95 percent.

These 'operant conditioning' techniques rely on simulating combat conditions as realistically as possible, with the soldier in full combat equipment firing at targets that look human and pop up randomly, rather than traditional marksmanship training that uses bull's-eyes at a known distance. With this training, with the psychological tools of depersonalization and denial, and variables such as revenge for losing friends and comrades in combat and physical and emotional distance removed from the target, soldiers are more able to fire their weapons on the battlefield.

While this is desirable from the point of view of the aim of war, which is to defeat the opposition, the price paid by the soldier and by society as a whole for every kill is enormous. When psychological damage and trauma of combat veterans are compared with that of victims of war – POWs, victims of attacks or civilians in bombed areas – the combat veterans sustain far greater mental and emotional trauma than the victims of war. Obviously, were we in a situation where we were attacked and needed to defend ourselves (which is the only legal reason to go to war), the ability of the soldier to do his duty on the battlefield is imperative, and if he is placed on the battlefield, he must be allowed to succeed. But when we ask a soldier - a normal human being with a built-in aversion to killing - to go against every instinct and kill another human, to deprive him of the moral justification which would help him to deal with the trauma inherent in killing is worse than criminal; it is evil. It is stealing his soul. Lt. Col. Grossman writes:
"(t)he higher the resistance bypassed, the higher the trauma that must be overcome in the subsequent rationalization process. Killing comes with a price, and societies must learn that their soldiers will have to spend the rest of their lives living with what they have done."

In World War II, there were a number of factors in place that kept veterans from suffering the type of PTSD that our Vietnam vets have experienced. Public recognition, respect, gratitude and appreciation - parades, memorials and monuments help to meet their desperate need to know that what they did was right, necessary and ultimately life-saving, and that they were welcomed back by the society to which they had literally given their lives and souls. Soldiers also returned home as a unit, and had days together on a troopship to 'decompress' - share their griefs, their fears, and process their war experiences with the only people who truly understood what they had been through: their fellow soldiers. Our Vietnam vets were deprived of most of these sanity-saving rituals and processes, and the psychiatric casualties are still affecting them and our society today.

Today's volunteer soldiers put not only their lives on the line for their country, but their very souls, with repercussions that extend into the rest of their lives, and the society as a whole. We must acknowledge this when we decide to engage in a conflict. To my mind, this is the worst of what has been stolen from us by George W. Bush and his neoconservative chicken-hawk puppeteers, greedy for domination, as well as his corporate war-profiteer cohorts, lip-smackingly eager for the unlimited riches which corporate sponsorship of war can generate.

The theft of the souls of these men and women who give their most priceless possession as a gift to the country they love is an unforgivable sin. And it is doubly vicious that those who are the most eager to spend American lives are the least willing to offer up those of their own. How dare Bush take this precious, irreplaceable resource and piss on it and then toss it away like so much Charmin? How dare he steal these souls with a lie? And then, when they come home, deny them health care, mental care, disability, and financial help in return? But the worst thing he has denied them is a just cause. How dare he?

The price of war cannot be measured merely in deaths and dollars. The uncounted cost of the mental and emotional trauma of those who must kill to do their duty is one we must account for if we are to be able to call ourselves a moral society. And by not holding the Bush regime accountable for these most heinous of all crimes, we are complicit in them. This is a wrong that can never be made right, and to allow Bush to add insult to injury by abandoning these soldiers whose lives he has already destroyed for his own ego, power and profit is to abandon our own souls. May God help us.

Monday, June 09, 2008

The Crime of the Century

I drank up Vincent Bugliosi's book, The Prosecution of George W. Bush for Murder like a thirsty person in the desert. Or, perhaps, like a drunken frat boy at a kegger. 

I have admired Mr. Bugliosi ever since Helter Skelter. He pulls no punches and has a passion for truth and justice. I believe him when he says that if it were a Democratic president who had perpetrated these crimes, he would be writing the exact same book. 

But the most important thing that I took away from this book was the reminder that the invasion of Iraq facilitated by lies is the most egregious crime that this pack of criminals has perpetrated upon the world, and not merely one of the many failures of the Bush Administration. In its magnitude it must not be compared to anything else, but stand alone in its atrocity, horror and shame. We can't lump it in with the other misdeeds such as wiretapping, tax cuts for the rich while stealing from the poor, protecting corporations while it attacks individuals, decimating a formerly robust middle class, gutting or usurping government agencies and laws that are supposed to be safeguarding the American people and putting the foxes in charge of the henhouse; although all of these are related and all of these are heinous in themselves, they pale beside the indisputable fact that our beloved country was lied into a war of choice. Not our choice, mind you; the choice of Bush and his 'advisors' the PNAC neo-conservative crowd, and the defense corporations and 'support' corporations who profit massively from it.

I still can't believe that we aren't screaming about this each and every day. It's like saying Hitler murdered six million Jews, and also had bad breath. No crime can be more vile than sending a nation to attack another nation without need; to kill hundreds and thousands of innocent people! The media will breathlessly report on the mysterious disappearance of one blonde white woman, and the nation roars its outrage as one. Yet let people act the same way over the Iraq 'war' and they are derided as left-wing lunatics who should just shut up and go along with the program. I still can't believe that the response from much of America, when confronted with the fact that we were lied into a bloody, greedy occupation, is, like that of our self-selected vice president (who really puts the 'vice' into vice president), "So?"

Everything this pack of psychopaths, murderers and thieves has touched since 2000 has been destroyed or perverted, to be sure. But, as far as I'm concerned, this groteque and monstrous 'war' is the Crime of the Century, and if we don't get it now, the world will hold us accountable later. Bugliosi points out that, unlike any other real 'war president' (Bush's own proud appellation), he is consistently cheerful, upbeat and - well, happy while hundreds of thousands who have died by his signature rot in their graves, and the millions of survivors and their family members who did not physically die on the battlefield have the hopes of a happy life destroyed forever. Bill Clinton was mocked for 'feeling our pain', and he certainly had his shortcomings, but I'd rather have someone 'feeling our pain' than feeling no pain. The grinning frat boy just goes on his merry way, leaving death and despair in his wake and thinking no more of it than he worries about the fate of the empty beer bottles that get thrown out (aren't they called 'dead soldiers'?) after a fraternity bacchanal. But it is the American people that will have to suffer the hangover, the shame and disgrace of the morning after.